Before I head to Djibouti, I’m back in NYC this weekend and have the honor of attending the Travel Bloggers Summit on Study Abroad & Global Citizenship. It’s day 2 and we’ve already made a resounding thunder clap on social media with over 35 million impressions of the #studyabroadbecause hashtag. I’m joined by top influencers — like some of my girls from Women’s Travel Fest (Courtney Scott, Juliana Broste & Mickela Mallozi), travel industry leaders (like NatGeo and JFK founded Partners of America) and the friggin’ United Nations and the importance of honoring Global Goals through studying abroad and global citizenship. The state department is watching us, guys.
We’re at Hostelling International USA’s NYC location (the largest privately owned green space in Manhattan) and danced the night away at the Global Goals Green Gala (and today at Global Citizen festival — another sponsor). Studying abroad in Milan, Italy in the Fall of 2006 was such a transformative time for me, and probably changed the trajectory of my life. I shared this story at the Story Jam last night and wanted to share it with you.
So this week, while I was on the Eurostar from Paris to London, Facebook shared a blurry 11 years ago today… it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. This blurry photo was of a beautiful Italian, building… probably a church, in Venice. I studied abroad in Milan in the fall of my junior year of college. I have a background in fashion, so many think that’s why I chose Milan. In actuality, I chose Milan for 2 big reasons. One. I wanted to really learn Italian. I took Latin for about 12 or 13 years. Spanish as well. I wanted to go to an Italian city where I could really experience the culture, the people, and not be treated like a tourist. Classmates that studied abroad in cities like Rome and Florence — they had a beautiful time, but it seemed like sightseeing and partying with other Americans. I’m still a strong believer in people to people tourism. I wanted to walk away with Italian friends. Reason two. Milan is a hub. I wasn’t going to pass up on this opportunity to go EVERYWHERE in Europe. And for the first few weekends, that’s exactly what I did. Venice, Bratislava — one of my favorites — Madrid, Rome… It started out with a larger group and then dwindled down to one girlfriend in particular that I’m close friends with to this day. However, eventually and especially as I started making friends with Italians, I really enjoyed my weekends in Milan. It became my home. In fact to this day, Milan is a place I lived, my memories of dinner parties with friends, getting lost on the beautiful streets near the Castello, the secret gardens, Thursdays at Giorgio Armani’s table at his club…. Dalliances with an Italian or two. That’s the Milan I love and fiercely defend when people say they don’t like it as a city.
“It’s not a city for tourists… it has it’s secrets”
I fire back. This choice to study abroad was also the beginning of a pattern, for me, a habit. One that I’m in the midst of right now. I just got off of a flight from London (while traveling all over, London is probably where I spend the most time second to NYC) and I’ve spent the last month in Paris. On Saturday, I’ll head back to London for the next few months… with a few pitstops in Copenhagen, Djibouti and Oslo before September wraps. You see, when I grow a bit complacent in life, I mix things up and get out. I’m still “studying abroad.”
In college… I went to a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts. Absolutely loved it, coming from a prep school in NYC, it was tantamount to boarding school. Great group of friends. Head of social council, classes were great, but something was missing. I needed something different and I seized the opportunity to study abroad. Sure, I’d travelled before, but never LIVED abroad. Faced the trials of running out of money while traveling. Foreign beauracracy, hell, I even kinda got engaged to a well to do Spaniard, I met in Greece. He asked while I was on a trip with his family to Rome… in front of the Trevi fountain… what was I to say. So I came back cosmopolitan a la Audrey in Sabrina. That experience set my life on the trajectory that has put me where I am now. I know I need the rush and excitement of being somewhere new. The anxiety of taking the metro in a new city for the first time… I became addicted to it. And when the malaise seeps in, it’s my cure.
Flash forward to a year post college. I’m working in fashion — I see it as a caveat for travel. I’m laid off of my first job. I travel for a little bit and I get that bug again. What am I doing here in NYC? Work is going ok, but it’s that malaise. I missed Italy. I missed my friends in Europe. “I need a change!” I cried to a friend. “I’ve got to get out of here!” So I took a dream job as an aupair. I’m still close with my Italian family today and visit them when I’m in Milan. I call it a dream job because it really is an anomaly in the au pair experience. I was so immersed in the family that it felt awkward taking money from them every week. Based in Milan, they had a beach house in Gallipoli, where we spent the summer. From day trips to show me the area to afternoons gossiping over coffee with the anziana neighbors, I couldn’t have asked for a better summer…. I got sunburnt… my arm hair turned blonde. I roadtriped through Italy. I actually motorbiked to the tip of the heel! Saw Albania from overhead. I saw sunsets in Puglia / Salento every night. Again, I came back changed. This time, pretty much fluent in Italian, ready to work and pretty much insisting that the next job I took in fashion had to get me to Europe regularly.
I ended up at Topshop in the Press Office with a focus on Celebrity, then fashion partnerships at a hotel group yada yada yada, travel writing and founding this blog. So everything’s good, right? I’m traveling at least a few times a month, all over. London has started to feel like my second home as I’m there seemingly every 2 or 3 months and have a strong support system there. But again, that old nagging feeling struck me around the end of last year. Perhaps frustrated with politics, my views on the state of our country and this feeling that I had to do even more to champion globalization and the connectivity of this world. Not just as a tourist but a cultural exchange ambassador. A strong desire to learn about other cultures, immerse myself in them. I felt tied down by NYC life. My apartment, my sun drenched oasis, suddenly becoming a ball and chain. So, I found a subletter, and packed my bags for France. And guys, it has been glorious. I am far from the first black American to head to Paris when a bit shaken by the state of affairs in the US and I’ve spent my last few weeks in Paris deeply exploring this feeling. The other, almost point of reverance that we occupy there. Then there are the Parisian stereotypes, the rude cold people, the clingy, saccharinely sweet romantic men. Check. But did you know it rains almost every day in Paris? Yet people are still outside in the cafes or that people will freak the f out if you hold up the line at the boulangerie at 6pm – prime hour for getting your bread for the evening. For the last few weeks, my mind has been cleared from the rat race that’s new york. When the sun poured into my flat, I knew that it was that perfect time of day — always 3.30 – 4.30 and I went for a coffee. I read paperback books at a cafe — instead of typing away furiously on my laptop.
I wandered without Google maps. Being abroad, studying or living reminds me of, connects me to my best self. Long periods abroad have always signaled great and exciting change for me. So right now, I’m just so thrilled for what’s next.
Have you studied abroad? Have you lived abroad? Please let me know your story with the hashtag #StudyAbroadBecause.